Arabia Alliance Goes To The Upper Housatonic Valley NHA

The Arabia Alliance crew got to tour the Upper Housatonic Valley NHA in Western Massachusetts, seeing such incredible sites as the home city of W.E.B. Du Bois and the Norman Rockwell Museum.

They say there is no tonic like the Housatonic. Who says that—and what does that even mean? Some of our team members from the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance recently found out.

Another autumn means another fall NHA work conference, a chance for one heritage area to host members from 62 others from all across the country. This year, the host was the Upper Housatonic Valley NHA, stretching from the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts down to northwest Connecticut. What ensued was a four-day, whirlwind tour that included unbelievable African American history, breathtaking mountaintop views and some serious Gilded Age “cottages” (read: mega mansions).

DAY 1: History Abounding Down Main Street

Most conference attendees stayed at the popular Red Lion Inn, a historic hotel in Stockbridge, MA that dates back to 1773. The Inn truly was a trip back in time with architecture, furniture, and artwork and décor stretching back generations—there was even a functional birdcage-style elevator.

Day one began with a walking tour of Stockbridge, a tiny, picturesque New England town (population ~2,000) with a seriously outsized historical and cultural impact on this country. Strolling down Main Street and back, heritage area folks learned about the history of the Mohicans, the indigenous people whose territory once encompassed the Hudson/Muhheacannituck Valley and Housatonic River Valley. In the mid-1780s, the tribe was forced off their ancestral lands and now lives on a reservation in northern Wisconsin as the federally recognized Stockbridge-Munsee Community.

The tour also included a stop at the centuries-old Stockbridge Cemetery where lie the remains of such fascinating figures as iconic American artist Norman Rockwell (more on him later), early Minister John Sergeant (who was buried in the cemetery 1749) and Elizabeth Freeman (formerly Mum Bett under her enslaved name) who filed a freedom suit in 1781and won!

Stockbridge Cemetery, dating back to the 1700s.

Stockbridge Cemetery, dating back to the 18th Century

The grave of Elizabeth Freeman (left)

After the history tour, we got to stretch our legs even more with a heart-pumping hike on the Ice Glen Trail just minutes from Downtown Stockbridge. Climbing over slick, moss-covered rocks, our Assistant Executive Director Brigette Jones showed that trail who was boss.

Arabia Alliance team members, from left to right: Communications Manager Jeff Dingler, Assistant Executive Director Brigette Jones and Executive Director Revonda Cosby

DAY 2: From W.E.B. Du Bois To The Gilded Age

Who could’ve guessed one of America’s greatest African American writers and intellectuals (and founder of the NAACP!) W.E.B. Du Bois was born just a few minutes south of Stockbridge in Great Barrington. Early on Tuesday morning, we all boarded a bus and several sprinter vans and rode to the historic Clinton African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church in Great Barrington where Du Bois is known to have attended services. In the midst of a years-long revitalization effort, the church will one day be the home of the W.E.B. Du Bois Freedom Center.

Our Executive Director Revonda Cosby was moved by the age and spirit of the AME church. “The Arabia Alliance needs to support this project as well,” she said. “This is the kind of work we’re doing at the Bruce Street School.” (Click here to donate to the Du Bois Freedom Center!)

The Clinton AME Zion Church where Du Bois would’ve attended some Sunday sermons

After a quick ramble on the Housatonic River Walk, we had the privilege of viewing three Gilded Age “cottages,” err, really fancy sprawling estates. First was Chesterwood, home of renowned American sculptor Chester French who designed one of the country’s most recognizable statues: the Lincoln Memorial in DC.

A look inside Chester French’s studio with a plaster model of the Lincoln Memorial on the left.

French’s study of hands

Heritage area folks enjoyed high-society tea and a finger-sandwich-heavy lunch at Ventfort Hall. Built by contractors of George and Sarah Morgan as their summer home, the exterior of this impressive Jacobean Revival mansion is instantly recognizable as the orphanage from the film adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules.

Ventfort Hall taken over by Heritage Area people

And The Mount served as a personal writing retreat for Edith Wharton, author of Age of Innocence and House of Mirth and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. With a living space this beautiful, it’s no wonder Wharton was able to write so much!

Wharton’s The Mount is aptly named with sprawling gardens and woods

DAY 3: Work, Work, Work Then Up Mount Greylock

Day 3 kicked off bright and early with a business meeting for the Alliance of National Heritage Areas (ANHA), which represents all 62 heritage areas. Arabia Mountain was well represented at this meeting. Our ED Cosby spoke as chair of the Finance Committee, as did our Communications Manager Jeff Dingler who co-chairs the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. Dingler premiered a new video short for ANHA about indigenous foods in Santa Cruz Valley NHA in Arizona.

After working hard for hours, we heritage area people needed to stretch our legs. Thankfully, next on the itinerary was a tour of Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state, were we took in some of the best views and fall colors around. We watched a blue mountaintop sunset from the Bascom Lodge at the summit of Greylock while enjoying a catered meal (and a few drinks).

The stunning view from Mount Greylock’s summit

DAY 4: From Religious Shakers to Norman Rockwell

The last day of the fall conference was just as packed with fascinating goodies for us heritage area nerds. First stop was historic Hancock Shaker Village, an exquisitely well-preserved historic village/community of Shakers, a now extinct Christian sect that valued community, equality among the sexes and complete celibacy (a hard sell, which ultimately doomed the religion).

The iconic circular stone barn at Hancock Shaker Village, built in 1826

A peek inside the massive circular barn

After being blown away by Shaker ingenuity, we got a peaceful respite at the beautiful Berkshire Botanical Garden back in Stockbridge.

An autumnal display at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens

The final stop of the trip: the Normal Rockwell Museum. It’s no coincidence that the picturesque towns of the Berkshires look like Rockwell paintings—the great American artist lived in Stockbridge for years. The Norman Rockwell Museum (literally just down the road from Chesterwood) was the highlight of the trip, featuring the most memorable works throughout Rockwell’s long career, including the artist’s powerful “Four Freedoms” series and all of his cover images for the Saturday Evening Post. 

Rockwell’s famous painting of downtown Stockbridge with the Red Lion Inn on the far right

As the sun dipped into the Berkshire Mountains on the final day of the conference, heritage area folks began to peel away back to the Red Lion Inn to pack their bags and head to the airport an hour-plus away. Our heads were spinning with the nature, culture and history we’d absorbed over just four days. Who knew such a small swathe of the country could have such an impact on our nation? That’s why they say there is no tonic like the Housatonic.